Is crafting meant to be fun?

Some of the best fun I have had with crafting in games has been where it was unusual to be a crafter so people would come seek you out to make commissions.

I think this is quite close to the original concept for crafting in MMOs. It was based on the medieval idea of the crafter as someone who made items by hand and might become well known for their crafting skills. Fantasy literature is also full of famous weapons and the people who made them. And I think that back in those days, new subgames were put into MMOs as much for thematic reasons as for gameplay.

So there is this notion of crafting being something that you could use to make your character different. Something that you could possibly do as an alternative to adventuring. A rare skill that might make you useful or desired in a community. Plus you could make items that you could sell to make some gold.

It has changed a bit since then. Modern MMOs tend to assume that everyone will take a crafting skill, and point you towards trainers fairly early on in the game. They also often split the skills between making things and gathering thing. And it’s fairly common that gathering skills and selling materials via an auction house or vendor becomes a staple money maker in the game for players.

For me, crafting is a bit schizo at the moment because it’s actually two different things.

  • Making stuff. Possibly creative handmade crafting skills. Crafter can distinguish themselves by what they make. Possibility for both crafter and client to make their character more unique involving one of a kind or rare items.
  • Selling stuff, or running a business. Probably involves selling commodity goods, may also involve producing them, in a production line type of way.

MMOs do the second part tolerably well (it varies from game to game, EVE is probably the high water mark for would-be virtual industrialists.) They do the first part very badly.

Which is unfortunate because it’s the first part which really fits into the fantasy settings that are so ubiquitous in the genre at the moment. You don’t really imagine production lines in Tolkien.

The problem with crafting rare goods

Crafters being a rare breed is very interesting from an immersive point of view, annoying from a buyers point of view, and extremely fun from the crafter’s point of view. It’s nice to be sought out for your skills.

Problem is, why would crafting be rare? Only because it’s tedious, time consuming, expensive to skill up, dependent on rare drops or starting conditions (eg. 1/100 characters starts out with potential for crafting) or otherwise inaccessible to the majority of the player base. So if we want crafting to be rare, it probably won’t be fun and accessible for most players.

You could imagine a game where crafting is fun, but most people will find it more fun to go kill stuff. I think EQ2 toys with this design and it seems to work well from what I have seen. Both crafting and adventuring are time consuming, and you probably don’t have enough time to do both. Given that choice, most players will choose adventuring but the ones who don’t can become (rareish) crafters. That would solve the problem of how to keep crafting rare without making it needlessly dull and time consuming.

To make this work, devs need to really put more work into crafting. It has to be a complete game in itself. An alternative to the rest of the game, and not something that was just tacked on at the last minute. That’s a very tall order for something that is going to be a minority interest. Free Realms has fully featured minigames for crafting, which I thought were good fun. It’s just that there’s not much of a way to sell things to other players and you can buy stuff for real cash that’s better. So they got the crafting down quite well, but there’s no real reward for it.

But still, I think players would enjoy being able to make more unique items, even if the uniqueness was just in the look. It would be cool if particular crafters could build up reputations. I’ve been told a few times that Star Wars Galaxies had a really good crafting system that allowed for a lot of crafter customisation. I don’t have personal experience with that, but it’s something I’d like to see developed further.

I also think that a lot of crafters would enjoy it if the crafting side of the game could be less dependent on the adventuring side. It’s fine to buy goods from adventurers that can only be gotten in instances or from nasty monsters. But forcing the crafter to level and go get it themselves isn’t the way to make crafting more fun. Until crafting is more recognised as a separate playing style in itself, it’s never going to really take off.

And I honestly believe that there are a lot of players –- especially people who enjoy crafting in real life (yes this would include a lot of women, I expect) – who would be very open to trying it out in a game and might really enjoy it and produce some awesome virtual goods. But it’s going to need some brave devs who accept that not everyone wants to go kill monsters or delve deep  into coding (a la Second Life) to really make it sing.

How about those production lines?

The actual process of crafting is typically pretty dull. There are some exceptions to this but it really is usually a case of have the materials handy and click the red button. Then watch the green line. If you’re lucky you will be playing a game where you can get it to keep crafting the same thing until all your materials are used up (that’s the production line). So you can go get some tea and feed the cat, maybe read a chapter or two of a book or catch up with Torchwood while you are waiting.

This is not actually playing the game in any meaningful way. It would be better to let players do it offline. It’s more to do with resource management and trading than with actually crafting anything so it would be better to treat it as a separate minigame.

And allowing players to put a production line in place isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially if the alternative is going off to read a book while the game gets on with it.  But it shouldn’t replace the more intensive process of producing a rare, handmade item.

Crafting doesn’t have to be tedious

I don’t think crafting needs to be dull. We don’t need artificial game mechanics to keep crafters rare. And rare, desirable goods don’t have to be ones with potential for unbalancing stats. It might be enough just to focus on letting crafters … craft. And letting traders … trade. And letting industrialists .. err… do industrial stuff.

But treating crafting and the economy as a one-size fits all second thought is missing out on a huge wodge of players who would love to play that game.

If crafting is the answer, what was the question?

Crafting in MMOs is an odd sort of activity; part time-sink, part economic driver, part cooperative endeavour, part mini-game, part character progression. It’s also one of the few parts of modern MMOs that didn’t evolve from MUDs.

There was no crafting in MUDs, at least not in any of the ones I ever played. What we had instead was the ability (when you were trusted by the people running the game) to help create new areas and coded objects in game. Creating an area was easier in a text based game, even if you didn’t like coding you could write some good descriptions and get someone else to code the exits.

It felt a lot more creative than clicking a button and watching a green bar. But most people never got to do it. It had to be carefully supervised and checked over to avoid crashing the server with bad code or upsetting half the playerbase with bad writing.

But crafting has grown up so organically and been so popular with players that I’m not sure anyone knows what the point of it is any more. People like making their own gear and gadgets, and creating items to trade with others. From an immersive point of view, people like to say ‘I am a blacksmith’ and have the skills to prove it. We see NPC crafters hanging out in the cities, and possessing non-combat skills helps players to feel part of that same world too.

Consumables vs Gear

There are two sorts of crafting skill, those that produce consumables (such as potions, food, and other items that get used up) and those that produce gear. For consumables to be successful there needs to be a constant demand, and that means players have consumable overheads for the more popular activities. ie. you have to buy buff food, potions, etc before you head off to an instance, or every time you get a new item, you have to buy talismans or enchants to stick in it.

So for consumables to be desirable, the whole player base has to bear an extra layer of ‘hassle’ in order to go out and do whatever fun activity they planned for the night.

Crafted gear has also been problematic to balance. If it is better than the stuff which you can get in dungeons then players wont’ be so motivated to go to the dungeons. If it’s worse then crafting is mostly pointless. I think games have been evolving to a place where crafted pieces have a niche, either as pre-raid gear (WoW) or as substitutes for specific gear slots but not enough to stop people from needing gear from other places.

Just reading those last two paragraphs makes me wonder whether crafting actually makes the game more fun for most people or not. However, when it works, it does a lot to liven up the in game economy. Characters are articifically forced to rely on others to fill some of their crafting needs. Tradeskills (I think this is probably a better name than crafting) can be forced to rely on gathered items, dropped items, other crafted items.

Gathering is often lumped in with crafting skills  for convenience, and gathering skills have been genuinely popular. Mostly because it’s a purely money making activity, but gathering also fills a niche of giving players a way to make some gold that doesn’t involve killing monsters/ farming. Depending on how it’s implemented, gathering is also immersive. Having different types of plants and ore appearing in different areas can help the game world feel more real.

(Note: Having your nodes of ore glowing and steaming will PROBABLY not help immersion).

Crafting alts

Being able to send items to your own alts killed the cooperative side of crafting. It became much easier to have a crafting alt to provide whatever your main character might need than to go find someone else to do it.

The response devs took was to make it increasingly difficult to have a crafting alt. Suddenly there were level restrictions on crafting, you couldn’t have a low level master crafter any more.

This is a confounded pain and I hate it. Maybe I wanted a character to RP with, potter around town, and do some crafting with on quiet nights. But no, now I actually have to play the dratted thing and level it.

And a perfectly good playing preference/ style got tossed out of the window. Bring back crafting alts, they still spend time in game.

What do we actually want from crafting?

One of the player hopes for crafting has always been that you could go out, figure out for yourself where to find the materials you need from the world around you, then come back and make something useful out of them. It’s a pure survivalist’s dream. Games have played around with the ideas and distilled them down into something which takes most of the fun and inventiveness out of this.

But crafting could actually solve one of the big current  MMO problems — the search for endgame PvE activities that aren’t raiding.

A more creative crafting minigame would make a lot of people happy. Second Life thrives on players having the ability to design and make (and sell) their own stuff. In Tale in the Desert (when I tried it, a year or so back), you could make scuptures out of any materials you could find, you could design your own complex firework displays, blacksmithing involves actually trying to hammer a piece of metal into the correct shape, you could design your own puzzles and have other players come to try them out and vote on whether they were fun.

Players went to town with all of these crafting minigames. They created works of art that were funny, brilliant, and creative. There were a lot of attempts which weren’t, but the good ones stood out and it was fun to try anyway.

It’s not going to fit all games. Warhammer for example is a game that never really needed crafting, all they needed was the ability to fix up your armour and paint banners and shields (actually, given the hobby it sprang from, a painting minigame would have been inspired for that MMO). But there’s a lot of scope in crafting that none of the big MMOs have really tried to address yet.